Bernie Sanders And Democrats Have Declared "War on Kentucky" Says Mitch McConnell

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Bernie Sanders sits in his office. Sanders is waging a “war on Kentucky” by forcing Republicans to remove a provision in the GOP tax plan this week that would have helped a Bluegrass State college for low-income students, said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who blasted the firebrand independent a hypocrite. Reuters

Bernie Sanders is waging a "war on Kentucky" by forcing Republicans to remove a provision in the GOP tax plan this week that would have helped a Bluegrass State college for low-income students, said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who blasted the firebrand independent a hypocrite.

The new war goes back to Tuesday night, when Sanders and other Democrats successfully challenged a higher education endowment tax that would have exempted tuition-free schools with fewer than 500 tuition-paying students and endowments larger than $500,000 per full-time student—a carve-out that apparently only applies to Berea College in McConnell's home state.

The Senate parliamentarian agreed that the provisions violated the Senate's budget rules, so it was scrapped. McConnell was enraged.

"They didn't have to raise the challenge when required," he said. "They chose to. And in the process they knowingly hurt schools that provide tuition-free education to students who can't otherwise afford to go to college. This is especially hypocritical coming from the man who claims to support free college for all. I remember the presidential campaign last year."

Sanders claimed that McConnell added the provision knowing that it went against parliamentary rules and that it would be flagged. "I am glad that Senator McConnell has suddenly developed an interest in making college affordable for working class families. I would hope, therefore, that he would co-sponsor my legislation making all public colleges and universities tuition-free," he said. "I do find it ironic that, while taxing higher education, Senator McConnell's legislation provided massive tax breaks to billionaires and large corporations."

McConnell upped his language on Friday, saying that Sanders and Senate Democrats are now waging a "war on Kentucky."

"It's a little college in the foothills of Appalachia that started in 1855 by abolitionists who don't have any money, and (students) get to go to school for nothing and they work their way through," McConnell explained. "Berea got caught by one of the provisions in the tax bill that provides a tax on college endowments after a certain point."

But as the two politicians fight over the provision, Berea suffers. The college only admits students whose families are unable to pay for higher education. The median income of a family with a student attending Berea is $29,000, and 98 percent of students get federal Pell grants.

McConnell introduced language into the tax bill to exempt the college from a 1.4-percent excise tax meant to be imposed on colleges with large endowments. Only institutions with at least 500 "tuition-paying," students would be subjected to the tax, stated the now-defunct provision.

McConnell said Democrats knowingly hurt "schools," implying that the provision would aid multiple universities, but the exemption was written specifically for Berea. There are a handful of tuition-free colleges in the United States, but Berea, with an endowment of $1.2 billion, is the only free school with a large enough reserve fund to be subject to the excise-tax.

The original intention of the Republican-introduced excise tax was to encourage universities with large endowments like Harvard and Princeton to use more of that money to lower tuition and award financial aid.

Berea estimates the endowment tax will cost it $1 million each year, most of which will be taken from its scholarship funds. "We need to make about $4 million a year to keep our doors open," the school's spokesman, Tim Jordan, said. "So losing $1 million could have a significant effect on us."

Jordan declined to comment on the politics behind the decision.

McConnell has said he will work with his colleagues in Congress and on the Kentucky government level to exempt Berea College from the effects of the excise tax.